Virginia Tech® home

Fear and the Moral Imagination: The Oil and Water of Democratic Self-Governance



Authors as Published

The current issue of the United States Holocaust Museum’s magazine, Memory & Action, features an article on the public outrage that arose in this country when early news of systematic Nazi persecution of Jews and other groups began to reach America in 1933.[1] Indeed, Rebecca Erbelding’s essay reports that “thousands of Americans attended anti-Nazi marches and rallies throughout the United States” (in at least 29 states) during that year.[2] One such rally in New York City on May 10, 1933 drew more than 100,000 citizens. But the outpouring of concern did not last and was not reflected in official government policy. A new exhibition opening in 2018 at the Museum will detail both the nation’s initial popular reaction to the growing evil in Germany and the reasons why historians believe it withered. That fact has left the United States with the agonizing question of whether the movement’s continuation might have made any difference in diminishing or perhaps even forestalling the horror that followed. While the exhibit will provide a fuller portrait of how and why the early furor concerning Nazi persecutions arose and evanesced in the United States, Erbelding provided two notable related explanations in her article,

Americans in 1933 were deeply afraid. They were afraid of being dragged into international conflicts: in the 1930s, Congress passed neutrality laws with overwhelming bipartisan support, proclaiming that the United States would remain isolated. … Many Americans also were afraid of anyone they perceived as different or foreign and many considered nonwhites as inferior. Throughout the 1930s, Congress could not pass an anti-lynching bill, Jim Crow laws (and customs) reigned in many parts of the country; and Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American citizens were forcibly deported from California.[3]

I found this argument especially striking given that just days ago the Trump administration announced it would forcibly require 59,000 Haitians previously allowed entry to the United States on humanitarian grounds to return to their hurricane devastated and deeply impoverished native country within the next 18 months. Stripped to its essentials, the “grounds” for this policy shift rest on an unfounded and unimaginative fear of “others” who do not look like the overwhelming share of President Donald Trump’s supporters. Trump’s action, in short, seems designed to exploit the basest of his supporters’ instincts and fears concerning social change and alterity. In another echo of 1933, the President has also sought to withdraw from an array of previous national commitments, including the Paris Climate Accord and the Transpacific Partnership. He has sought to justify these anti-internationalist steps as “putting American interests first.” At bottom, in fact, they reflect an isolationist fear of international engagement.

On the same day that I came across the Memory & Action piece, I read a devastating negative review by the distinguished theological thinker, David Bentley Hart, of a new book whose authors had sought to produce a volume justifying the death penalty on the basis of Christian teaching.[4]According to Hart, their effort did not succeed on any level. Notably, among Hart’s many concerns was this one:

Among principled opponents of the death penalty, very few could be accused of nurturing any tender illusions regarding the deeds or characters of violent criminals. Moreover, whenever one party to a debate dismisses the ethical concerns of the other side [as this volume’s authors did] as ‘sentimental,’ it is usually an indication of the former’s inferior moral imagination.[5]

Hart’s comment on the character of the argument and authors he was reviewing, coupled with awareness of the American experience in 1933 and Trump’s behavior today, points to a deeper reality: Abstract and absolutist claims, often predicated on raw fear, that seek to eradicate the possibility of a mutuality arising from shared humanity are the enemy of the moral imagination, that fabric of norms and values that joins citizens together and on which democratic self-governance ultimately rests. Here is how Edmund Burke, the architect of the idea of the moral imagination, described the concept in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion. … On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern, which each individual may find in them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left behind which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth.[6]

Today, it appears that Trump daily seeks foremost to appeal to his supporters’ fears of social and economic change as well as their willingness to scapegoat and discriminate against specific groups to “explain” and allay those concerns. The president has used economic and social anxieties and animosity to justify his attacks on the nation’s principal institutions and capacity for individual and collective moral imagination.

To be sure, Trump’s consistent willingness to exploit a share of the citizenry’s fears and prejudices for political gain—that is, to work actively to cloud and truncate Americans’ potential for moral imagination by appealing to their darkest concerns and ugliest proclivities—highlights his own dearth of that capacity. Nonetheless, the president’s smallness and cruelty do not explain why many would choose to respond favorably to his attacks on others in American society on the basis of their perceived differences. Put differently, fear need not lead to scapegoating and hate mongering, but it clearly has in the current circumstance, and it did so during the Great Depression years as well. Moreover, as Burke realized, those who are made symbols or objects of fear and loathing need bear no relation to the problems they are said to represent. Instead, they are persecuted because it is alluring and easy for leaders and some citizens to maltreat “othered” and often powerless individuals to help make false and simple sense of their own roiling worlds.

This discussion suggests that a central question confronting our polity today, now headed by a leader disposed to attack the bonds that join Americans amongst themselves and with the world, is where those desiring to stop such empty assaults may find leaders able to offer a different vision of the nation, one that stresses and nurtures those ties. Trump has shown he is prepared to violate human rights and vitiate civic connections alike as he pursues opportunities to feed the anger of his base of supporters. A key challenge for the polity now is whether other Republican leaders who recognize the danger that othering and fear-filled discriminatory behavior represent can bring an alternative vision for the nation forward and press it effectively within the Party and beyond. So far, at least, few elected officials in Trump’s party appear willing to play such a role.  Assuming those individuals cannot or will not do so, the responsibility will lie with Democratic Party leaders to identify individuals who can describe the peril now at hand for the country and chart steps to address it in a way compelling to the majority of the nation’s citizenry. Whatever their origins or partisan cast, the nation now urgently needs public leaders with moral imagination to help the country regain its balance and perspective and to ensure its prospects for continued self-governance.  The risk to the Republic is too high to allow the present situation to continue unchecked.


[1] Erbelding, Rebecca, “1933: How did Americans React?” Memory and Action, (Fall 2017), Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, p. 16.

[2] Erbelding, p. 16.

[3] Erbelding, p.15.

[4] Hart, David Bentley, “Christians & the Death Penalty: There is no Patron Saint of Executioners,” Commonweal, (December 1, 2017), pp. 16-21.

[5] Hart, p.16.

[6] Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France, (Garden City New York: Anchor Books, 1973), pp.90-91.

Note to Readers: This essay marks a milestone, as it is the 250th Soundings—the column first appeared on January 17, 2010. Thank you to all who have encouraged me to write these commentaries and who have offered their comments, positive and negative, concerning my efforts. I am very much in your debt. The next Soundings will appear on January 8, 2018. Happy Holidays to all! MOS

Publication Date

December 4, 2017